Minor Assayas, but still better than most things.
Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas in Summer Hours mode: a stripped-down chamber drama that looks slight at first glance, but quickly reveals itself to be very expansive. In this case, it’s due to the levels of meta-reality Assayas stacks on top of each other: Binoche and Stewart riff on their established personas, while simultaneously playing characters who spend most of their time rehearsing a play in which they increasingly notice parallels with their own identities. This playful trickery doesn’t extent to the aesthetic scheme, however, as Assayas frames almost every scene as a series of simple yet graceful handheld medium-wide shots, usually casting one or two characters against a large swath of negative space. It’s not his most visually dynamic work, but his delicately composed architectural compositions pack a punch more often than not.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a middle aged actress of considerable esteem who’s trying to distance herself the brief stint she spent in Hollywood – during which she gained a disproportionately large chunk of her wealth and fame – and return to the sort of sombre European dramas and theatre work through which she made her name to begin with. There isn’t exactly a shortage of films about the professional and personal travails of aging actresses, but Assayas at least turns the convention on its head to a certain extent, portraying Binoche’s current career slump is portrayed not so much as an institutional evil than a result of her own narrow-mindedness and snobbery – both of which have built up over the years as a way of rationalizing her own apathy. Her cynicism is toxically deflective and her depression is largely self-imposed. Maria and her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) are journeying to Switzerland to meet with Klaus, the director of her breakthrough play, Maloja Snake. Snake tells the story of a young secretary, Sigrid, who begins an ill-advised affair with her much older boss, Helen. En route, Maria discovers that Klaus has committed suicide, and she soon agrees to sign on to an honorary revival of said production. The kicker is that this time Maria will be playing Helen, and Sigrid will be portrayed by Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young starlet more famous for her tabloid-baiting exploits than her acting.
The bulk of the film takes place in the Swiss Alps, where Maria and Valentine have holed up in an isolated cabin for the summer while Maria prepares for the role. During the process, Maria often uses Valentine as a springboard for ideas or a rehearsing partner. We only hear brief snippets of the play, but it’s clear that its character dynamic parallels that of the film itself and the two realities become intertwined to the point that it’s hard to distinguish between them. Pretty much every rehearsal scene is coloured by the specific feelings of the characters at that particular moment; they don’t deviate from their script, but they use it as a means to communicate their actual feelings through nothing other than inflictions and stresses. What emerges as the film’s main theme is the fragility of the line that divides actor’s private and personal lives. For example, Maria is initially hostile towards Jo-Ann, or rather, the idea of Jo-Ann as it’s been constructed by TMZ-like gossip sites and lame talk shows. But when they actually meet, she finds out that Jo-Ann’s life is actually pretty banal – she drinks tea in a blandly high-end hotel and acts with low-key politeness. Her abrasive, devil-may-care persona is revealed to be little more than an elaborate marketing ploy.
The satirical pokes at fanboy and tabloid culture are often overly broad, resulting in some clunky dialogue (“you despise celebrity gossip”, “she said she’s going to take the X-Men thing off IMDB”), but the film’s critique of modern mainstream American films itself is spot-on. Assayas – who has a background as a Cahiers du Cinema critic – has a thorough understanding of the what’s wrong with so much high-budget cinema and TV, compacting most of his ideas into a small parodic film-within-the-film, which doubles down on pointlessly complex power plays, constantly explicated themes, and boring reverse-shot patterns, which are all delivered with an unearned air of strained self-seriousness.
This is all high-concept stuff, but Assayas, for the most part, stages it with playful lightness so it never comes across as a pure academic exercise. This is largely because Maria and Valentine are too fully developed to seem like mere stand-ins for ideas. As these mentor-student relationships often work, each party short-sightedly idealizes the other while simultaneously resenting them on some level. Maria likes to see Valentine as a sort of protégé, yet also perceives her as a member of a generation addicted to a shallow and disposable culture; a reactionary belief that stems more from her own neuroticism and apathy than anything else. The skittish, self-effecting Valentine, for her part, is desperate for validation from the more self-assured and seemingly complex Maria, yet her insecurity also leads her to relish any cracks in Maria’s façade she notices. It’s unfortunate that Clouds ends on a minor, pat note, complete with a late period Woody Allen-esque moral about the perils of idealizing the past and learning to accept your current situation. This is undoubtedly minor Assayas, but that’s still better than most things.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), directed by Olivier Assayas, is released in UK cinemas by Curzon Film World, Certificate 15.